Swedish Christmas traditions

by Wournos

The Swedish Christmas is all about the food, the company and the Christmas cartoons on the 24th.

Sweden is considered a Christian country yet the people are, for the most part, not religious. This doesn’t stop us from celebrating a religious holiday. Our tradition in food and decorations has influences from the Vikings as well as Germany.

Swedes usually spend time with their family and extended family no matter how they celebrate the holiday.

Less-Is-More doesn’t always fit when it comes to Swedish Christmas decorations

Christmas is probably the only time of year when the typical Swedish mentality less-is-more goes on holiday. Out comes tons of small Santa statues - both traditionally and contemporary looking - red tablecloth, curtains and candles. Christmas wreath hare hung on doors, and poinsettias decorate windows and tables.

One of the most typical decorations during Christmas is the Advent star. It is hung in windows on First Advent and is a reminder of the Bethlehem star.

The “adventsljusstake” (advent candleholder) has 4 candles, one for each Sunday leading up to Christmas Eve on the 24th. The candles are traditionally white or red. The candleholder comes in various shapes and material. Metal candleholders often have room for adding moss and decorations such as miniature fly agaric.

The first candle is lit on First Advent and burns for a while. A week later both the first and second candles are lit, and so on until all candles are lit on the 4th Sunday.

There is also an electric version of the advent candleholder, but it usually has 5 or 7 lights and is shaped as a triangle. It is also more commonly known as a “Julljusstake” (Christmas candleholder).

Many Swedes buy Christmas trees to decorate. The decorations usually involve colourful balls, small electric lights, garlands and a large star at the top.

Others prefer plastic trees to avoid cutting down living trees. This is also a good option for pet owners. We’ve all seen what happened with Pluto and the Chipmunks!

Recording from Norwegian television

Swedish Christmas food – we didn’t come up with ‘smorgasbord’ for nothing

A typical tradition is to set up a table with lots of food. We call it “Julbord”, which basically means ‘Christmas table’. It’s a Christmas equivalent of “smörgåsbord” – a table full of different types food where a person collects a plate, circles the table and selects what they want to eat and then sits down at a dinner table.

The main foods that are always on a “julbord” is:

  • Boiled eggs cut in half
  • “Prinskorv” (‘prince sausage’)
  • Meatballs
  • “Inlagd sill” (pickled herring)
  • “Julskinka” (Christmas ham)
  • Heated red cabbage
  • “Janssons frestelse” (Jansson’s Temptation)
  • “Vörtbröd” (voertbroed or Christmas beer bread)
  • Cheese to put on the bread
  • “Risgrynsgröt” (rice pudding)

Swedish Christmas foods


“Inlagd sill” comes in various different flavours. The most common ones are mustard, onion and garlic and are bought ready-made in small glass bottles. This dish also appears during the Easter and Midsummer holidays.

“Risgrynsgröt” is a warm sticky meal with a red fruit soup that is served for dessert. A peeled almond is sometimes put in the pot before serving and whoever gets it can make a wish or gets a small gift.

Gingerbread cookies and “glögg” (mulled wine) are served at any time during Christmas. “Glögg” can be with or without alcohol, and is served with crushed almonds and raisins on the side.

“Lussebullar/Lussekatter” is a sort of sweet bun with saffron that is usually shaped as an “S”, and has two raisins in the twirls of the “S”.

The tradition is to eat cold foods, such as eggs and herring, on a small plate and then have the hot foods served on a larger plate afterwards. If you are a Swede and decide to go against this tradition in terms of mixing foods – expect a verbal slapping from the elder generation. I’m speaking from experience! ;)

Traditions and rituals

Music is played almost everywhere throughout the holiday. Anything remotely related to Christmas is played – even Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’. It’s common to dance around Christmas tree with children while mimicking hopping frogs.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve is celebrated on the 24th and there is one tradition that Swedes over 30 devote time to whether they want it or not – the 3pm cartoons!

The tradition of Christmas cartoons dates back to 1960 and is a version of the American Disney programme ‘From All Of Us To All Of You’. It became very popular because it was the only cartoons available at the time. Nowadays there are cartoons everywhere, so children are usually not too keen on watching it. But they get indoctrinated relatively fast.

The cartoon scenes differ from the original though. Our version has scenes from the following cartoons:

  • Santa’s workshop
  • Donald Duck in the jungle
  • Cinderella
  • Mickey Mouse camping
  • Lady and the Tramp
  • The Jungle Book
  • Snow White
  • Ferdinand
  • Robin Hood
  • Pluto and the chipmunks
Robin Hood (Swedish)

The Christmas Cartoons is usually the second most viewed program of the year. During the past 14 years it has dropped to 3d or 4th place only 4 times with an average of 3,500,000 viewers each year. That’s about 1/3 of the Swedish population as of 2011.

Mellandagsrean - the super sale in shops

“Mellandagsrean” is the massive sale in shops during the days between Christmas Eve and New Years Eve. It is possibly the most manic time of the year, and I’ve heard of people pondering celebrating their Christmas in January to save money.

The burning of Gävlebocken

Each year Gävle County erects a gigantic Christmas goat on Slottstorget in time for First Advent. It’s made of straw tied over a wooden frame and is a replica of the smaller traditional goat Swedes often have in their homes.

The tradition started in 1966 and continues until this day. What has made it so famous is not the effort of making such a massive decoration, but because it has become a tradition to burn it down, or damage it, as soon as possible.

As of 2010 the goat is being watched by both guards and CCTV. As of 2011 plush Christmas goats are sold to finance the improvement of security.

It is illegal to burn the goat! Don’t get any ideas!

The gift game

When my family get together they often play the “gift game”. Everyone participating needs to have brought 2 wrapped gifts worth a set sum. All gifts are placed on the middle of a table while everyone takes a spot around the table. Each person throws a die and if he or she gets a six they can select a gift. This continues until all gifts have been selected.

A timer is then set to a random amount of time. The game continues, but now the participants select gifts taken by someone else when they get a six. The game ends as soon as the timer goes off. Since no one knows when this happens the situation becomes very stressful and participant’s dark side starts to show.

Sore losers should not attempt this. ;)

My own traditions

I’m not a hard-core Christmas celebrator but I still enjoy the holiday. To me, a great Christmas is spent with family members to eat good food and just have fun and relax. I need cold, snow (if possible), darkness and cosy lighting. Going away on a sunny holiday is heresy in my opinion.

Decorating my home has never been my thing. Growing up with cats that either knocked over the Christmas tree or stole miniature plush Santa statues made it too much of a hassle. But I do enjoy other people’s effort – as long as it’s not over the top.

I would definitely choose contemporary decorations if I went on a shopping spree. Small Santa figurines in grey with tall hats are what I would choose.

My music of choice differs greatly too. I have a habit of listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Greatest Hits”. I believe it comes from growing tired of hearing 20 different versions of Jingle Bells, and other typical songs, and just feeling a strong need to protest.

One tradition I’ve tried to break free from but fail miserably at each time is watching the cartoons, not to mention not joining in during the speeches. It is impossible! I guess I’m too amused by them.

Updated: 07/28/2014, Wournos
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katiem2 on 12/07/2012

Oh my how magical and wonderful. :)K

Wournos on 12/07/2012

My favourite Christmas ham is actually the Danish ham. It is much more moist than the Swedish ham. ...and those saffron buns... No wonder anyone gains weight during this holiday!

Wournos on 12/06/2012

You make it sound as if there's military surrounding it. ;D
The goat is surrounded by some sort of fence and is surveillanced by CCTV. There are few guards (no idea how many, I'm guessing one or two) patrolling the area and voluntary citizens who 'look out' for the goat.

According to an article I found two night owls online noticed suspicious people Tuesday night and called the police.
The recent winter storm has apparently damaged one of the horns.

If you're interested you should look at Wikipedia. It has a massive list of the goat's fate each year. 2001 is interesting. ;)

JoHarrington on 12/06/2012

I laughed so much about the goat. Particularly you warning people not to burn it! LOL How do people get close enough with so much security?

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